Roma education initiative seeks to foster role models

Photo: archive of Roma Education Fund

For more than 10 years, the Roma Education Fund has been helping young Roma students to receive higher education and become professionals in their fields. At the moment, the programme is operating in 16 countries, including the Czech Republic. I spoke to Yveta Kenety, coordinator of the program administrated in the Czech Republic by a Roma NGO ROMEA, and I first asked her to tell me a bit more about its objectives.

Yveta Kenety,  photo: Jana Plavec
“Roma education fund started operating in 2005 in Budapest. Its establishment was decided in high level conference on Roma in 2003 and it was co-financed by the World Bank, Open Society Institute, the European Commission, UNDP, and the Hungarian, Finnish and Swedish governments.”

“Its mission and ultimate goal is to close the gap between in educational outcomes between Roma and non-Roma. and the main goal of the scholarship programme is to allow Roma people achieve as high education as possible, so in our case to graduate from universities.

“At the same time we want them to be confident and proud of their Roma identity and to be equipped with skills and competences that enable them to have good jobs and to be successful in their careers and their professions.”

When was the programme launched here in the Czech Republic?

“In the Czech Republic it was launched in 2010. At first it was administrated by youth organisation Athinganoi and later it was taken over by Romea, which is still administrating this programme. Roma Education Fund also offers grants to NGOs in the Czech Republic, but it is all focused on education.”

Is it intended only for university students?

“The programme in the Czech Republic is offering grants and scholarships only to Roma university students but we offer scholarships in 15 other countries and in these countries, Roma Education Fund also offers scholarship to secondary school students. In the Czech Republic, this is offered by the Ministry of Education but also by Romea and other NGOs.”

How many students actually completed their studies thanks to your programme?

“Since 2010, we have awarded about 370 scholarships and of this number about 70 percent finished their studies. I am talking mostly about BA level of education, which is the most popular among our beneficiaries, but there are also students of Master and PhD programmes. But majority is BA students and the drop-out rate is about 30 percent, which is comparable to the drop-out rate among majority students.”

What kind of requirements do they have to fulfil to be able to take part in your programme?

“They have to be students enrolled in a university, either private or state university which must be accredited by the state. They should have good educational outcomes. We calculate their GPA and the better GPA the better chance they have to get the scholarship.

Photo: archive of Roma Education Fund
“Annually we award between 35 and 40 scholarships, but we hope this number will keep on increasing. The students have to apply in an online application system, which is quite complex. They have to write two essays on a good level and they also have to provide confirmation that they cooperate or will cooperate with some Roma NGO.

“So we aim to motivate them and encourage them to pay back to the community. We don’t want them to get educated and successful and then leave. We would like them to support their own community, so we encourage them to work with them and we want them to provide us with some kind of recommendation letter and later a proof what they have been doing with the NGO.”

From your experience, do these Roma university graduates serve as role models for younger kids?

“Definitely. We encourage them for example to tutor children, which some of our students do. For the Roma kids studying at elementary schools or secondary schools, when they see a university educated or students studying at universities, they are also Roma, it is a great motivation and encouragement for them.

“Some organisations like Romea also organize meeting for students and invite university and secondary school students to these meetings and we hope in the future that they will also be serving as mentors to these younger children.”

Would you say that the interest in your programme has been gradually increasing over the years?

“The interest has been slowly increasing, but it is not a steep raise, because the situation in education really is not so easy. To get into secondary school is getting harder and harder. As of this year, the national entrance exams were introduced.

“We are not sure how many Roma kids will get into secondary school, because in order to be eligible for university you must first pass secondary school. So this is a complex issue and as a result, the number of university students is still not huge, but it is definitely much higher than it used to be some 15 years ago.”

“Every year, we get about 60 or 70 applications and we accept about 40 of them not all are eligible in the end. We also know that there are some Roma students still who don’t know about the programme so part of my work is to inform the public about its existence, so that they find out about it apply for this programme. I hope that this number will continue to go up.”

Are there any subjects that are particularly popular among the Roma students?

“It’s probably natural that a lot of students study educational or social fields. They want to become social workers and teachers. We encourage them to study proper teaching fields, to be teachers of physics or mathematics, not only special teachers like it used to be.

Illustrative photo: archive of Radio Prague
“The interesting thing is that they also apply regardless of age, and they can also study part time. The Czech Republic is the only country that allows this and we have lots of students who are older than 40, which I a proof that the Roma people are interested in education at any age. They feel that now is their chance and they didn’t have this chance before. I really admire them because they have families and jobs and they still study and have really good grades.

“Other subjects they choose are medical professions, we have quite a few nurses and midwives, a few doctors and lawyers, some students study international relations, one student studies at the Anglo-American college, so all her studies are in English, so it’s a wide scale of professions that they will be doing.”

How important is education for the Roma minority and for them to be accepted by the majority society?

“A lot of our students emphasize the enormous role of education. That it is the main way out of poverty or discrimination and it’s the ticket to success and more and more Roma people realize this. As for our beneficiaries, they are really in most cases the first in their families who are studying at university or even secondary school and their families are enormously proud of this fact.

“As a result of the policy under communism when most Roma were segregated in special school their parents have almost no education. But they would do anything for their kids to be educated and often they are willing to get into debts to pay for the tuition.

“I think it’s the main task of the NGOs to support this, to inform the parents and it starts already in pre-school age because Roma children don’t go to pre-school as much as the majority kids. And there are still lots of Roma children, about 25 percent, who are educated in segregated elementary schools, where the level of education is not good. Once you miss the good start, it is really hard to catch up, so it is really important to start at this early age. Then we can have more university students.”​